Appropriate research – you’re doin’ it WRONG


Today, on my last day with the Tarot of Northern Shadows, I found some stunning cultural inaccuracies in the deck. Let me give you an example.

The Magician

The book says this about the card:

The image of the magician is based on a Lappish shaman in deerskin costume with club, drum and runic symbols. The reindeer gead is part skull symbolising the cycle of life and death. Behind the kneeling figure the moon in the night sky blends with the day, and Bifrost, the flaming rainbow of Norse mythology, linking the physical and spiritual realms of earth and heaven. In the grass the squirrel Ratatosk regards the shaman.
Norse legend relates how this squirrel was able to run as a messenger between the three worlds of the mighty ash tree Yggdrasil. This tree’s roots linked the Norse equivalent of heaven, earth and hell, thus this shaman is able to receive and convey all knowledge. The reindeer horns reflect the spreading branches of Yggdrasil beneath which the shaman encompasses all levels of creation.

Whoa… wait a minute. First of all, while there was some Viking trade and accompanying cultural exchange between the two, the Sámi people never were the same as the Norse people. Therefore the appearance of the Norse mythological elements of Bifrost, Yggdrasil, and Ratatösk/Ratatoskr in connection to a Sámi shaman is simply wrong (compare the Wikipedia article on Norse mythology or Norse cosmology).

Then, it has already been known in 1997 when the book was written that many Sámi consider “Lapp” or “Lappish” a pejorative term. I’d expect people who create a deck based on Northern mythology and culture to pay respect to that.

The “reindeer head” also seems strange to me. Reindeer antlers are typically round at the tips, not pointy, due to the velvet they are covered with during growth. The general shape seems wrong to me as well, but I’d let that go as artistic freedom if the antlers looked like reindeer ones otherwise.

Then there are the drum and drum beater which – you guessed it – are also all wrong. The drum in the card image is perfectly round and has two plain, big runes painted on it. If you do an image search for “Sami drum” you will see that historical Sámi drums were oval or egg-shaped and often a bit irregular. The illustrations on the drum head were much more detailed and patterned in a certain way. (I don’t even know if the Sámi used the same runes as other Nordic cultures, but someone else will have to do more research on that.) The drum beater on the card looks like a short wooden baseball club. Historical Sámi drum beaters, however, were hammer-shaped and look like they are made from antler or bone. There is some more detailed information about Sámi drums here, complete with some photos and drawings.

And then there’s Ratatösk again (who, by the way, regards the drum, not the shaman). Even within Norse mythology I’m not aware of its messenger qualities being linked to any human, no matter how spiritually gifted. As I described in my earlier post, it is only mentioned as carrying back and forth messages between the lower world and the upper world, most of them apparently insulting and malicious. The middle (human) world isn’t mentioned.

These are more than just editorial glitches – these is major misinformation that make me disrespect the deck and book immediately.

Let me end on two much more amusing but equally facepalm-worthy snippets.

The Emperor

This card portrays the Norse god Odin. The books says this about the wolves on the card:

Norse legend say that these creatures [the wolves Geri and Freki] were fed by no one else but Odin, who gave them some of the meat set before him, for Odin was sustained solely by sacred meat.

No, no, no. Odin consumed nothing but mead, that is, honey wine. Not meat. ‘Nuff said.

And then there are the acknowledgements.

They refer to three people/organizations and are three sentences long, so the amount of text is pretty manageable. Her’s the third sentence:

To may wife Marie, for her greatly appreciated editing skill.



2 responses »

  1. Wow…I’m glad you pointed out all this about the deck. So I don’t have to buy it. :D I am interested in Norse Mythology, in Scandinavia (particularly Finland – as you might have guessed from my nickname), so I might have bought it because of the name. Glad I didn’t.

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